Port Arthur survivors remember – and say gun laws must never change

On the 20th anniversary of the massacre, those bereaved have more than grief on their minds. Gun control ‘was the one thing that gave me some hope, that those people did not die for nothing’, says Walter Mikac

Walter Mikac was playing golf when the shots rang out. It was around lunchtime on Sunday April 28, 1996. At the historic convict site at Port Arthur, Tasmania, across the bay from where Mikac stood at the Tasman Golf Course, a massacre was taking place.

His wife and two daughters, aged just three and six, were killed, along with 32 others. They thought the gunman, Martin Bryant, was one of many fleeing the shootings and ran towards his car for help. He killed them all at close range.

Across the water, Mikac had no idea what had happened. He would later be let through the police blockade, in front of an international media picket, to view their bodies.

Bryant, who is serving 35 counts of life imprisonment, began shooting his 30-shot, AR-15 rifle at 1.30pm and killed 20 people in 90 seconds in the Broad Arrow Cafe and gift shop before going outside to kill 11 more. The remaining four victims were shot off-site.

But it was the murder of Nanette, Madeline and especially six-year-old Alannah Mikac, shot by a gun barrel pressed into the back of her neck as she hid behind a tree, that came to represent the horror of what had happened at Port Arthur and spurred the campaign for drastic gun reform.

Walter Mikac led that reform with a letter to the then prime minister, John Howard, written a few days after the shooting.

“I wrote it when I was heading to Melbourne for the funerals of Nanette and the children,” Mikac told Guardian Australia. “It was a very concise and very direct letter to say: how could we possibly be in a situation that gun laws were so lax that you could go and buy a semi-automatic weapon without any checks?

“He rang me at my parent’s place in Melbourne and asked me if he could read that letter at the police minister’s meeting the next day.”

Mikac agreed. “I had nothing to lose,” he said. “I had already lost my whole family.”

On Thursday, survivors of the massacre and friends and family of those who died will gather on the lawns next to the shell of the Broad Arrow Cafe, now a memorial garden, to mark the 20th anniversary. Still more will watch the hour-long ceremony, running from 12.30pm to 1.30pm, via a video feed to St David’s Cathedral in Hobart, almost 100km away.

Among the survivors will be Sydney opera singer Amelia Farrugia, who has been asked to sing at the service. Farrugia also performed at the service marking the 10th anniversary; it was her first time back at the site since the massacre.

Mikac will not be among them. He visited the site once after the shooting, for the first anniversary, and has no desire to return.

A stuffed bear, shells and flowers are offered at a memorial in Port Arthur.
A stuffed bear, shells and flowers are offered at a memorial in Port Arthur. Photograph: Rod McGuirk/AP

Instead, the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, founded by Mikac in 1997 in honour of his daughters, will hold a candlelit vigil in Melbourne’s Federation Square on Thursday night.

Howard used Mikack’s letter to secure national agreement for uniform gun laws at an emergency meeting of state and territory police ministers held 12 days after the massacre.

The reforms that followed – banning automatic and semi-automatic weapons, severely restricting access to handguns, and placing stringent conditions on the acquisition and storage of the one and two shot firearms that were still available – remain a source of comfort to Mikac and the families of other Port Arthur victims.

“That legislation being passed at the time was the one thing that gave me some hope, that those people did not die for nothing,” he said.

“I will fight tooth and nail to make sure that these laws remain in place.”

A fight may be required: the pro-gun lobby, led by the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia, has successfully lobbied for a number of states and territories to reduce red tape around gun ownership. It is also campaigning against the proposed banning of the seven-shot Adler A110 lever-action shotgun, which is not a type of firearm explicitly banned in the 1996 National Firearms Agreement but which gun control advocates, like Mikac, say was “explicitly designed to get around Australia’s laws”.

A temporary ban on the shotgun will automatically expire on 7 August, and a decision on whether to ban the gun permanently, expected as part of a review into the 1996 laws, has reportedly been delayed.

Meanwhile, more than 7,440 modified five-shot Adler shotguns were imported into Australia between October and March.


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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